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THE first-class wardrobe was lined with expensive fur coats, while in economy class suits and ties – with hats for the ladies – were de rigueur. Air rage was unheard of – if a well-heeled flyer did happen to indulge a little too much in the free-flowing Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then they were more likely to flirt with, rather than shout abuse at, the air hostesses. And strict legs vetting procedures meant not even the sight of a chunky ankle was allowed to spoil a passenger’s enjoyment of their Beluga caviar or lobster.
When Boeing introduced its 707 jet at the tail-end of the 1950s, it heralded a whole new era in air travel. It could fly faster and further – meaning fewer fuel stops – than any previous plane, and could hold more passengers.
Airlines from Pan Am to BOAC, one of the forerunners of BA, rushed to ditch their air-propeller models in favour of the newcomer which could reach New York in just six and a half hours from London.
Flights were still pricey compared to these easyJet days and so passengers tended to be those with a little cash to splash – from celebrities and
People would just enjoy the beautiful food royalty to the plain wealthy. And so in the 1960s a whole new class was born – the jet set.
“It was a golden age of travel,” says Alastair Dodds, principal curator of transport at the National Museums of Scotland, which includes the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian, where part of the last 707 in Britain is about to go on display. “I remember pictures on television of stars like The Beatles getting on planes and they were always 707s.
“Passengers were treated extremely well – food and drink was as good as the top hotels’. And while a lot of stars now have private jets, then if you flew on a 707 you were likely to be on the same flight as someone famous.”
For some it was a rare treat – in the course of the research for the exhibition, which will feature a 707 cockpit and cabin crew area, Alastair found an advert for flights to Beruit, so far out of ordinary folks’ reach they came with an option of a year-long payback plan. But there was a way for those on more modest means to join the jet set – by becoming an air steward or stewardess. Also in the Jet Age exhibition is a host of films, memorabilia and recollections from those whose job it was to cater for the 707 passengers’ every whim.
Among the memories are those of Libbie Escolme Schmidt, who believes she flew in the very BOAC plane set to go on display in East Lothian. She was 24 and looking for a cheap way of getting home to her native Australia when she applied to BOAC in 1964. She clearly remembers her interview for the post. “The disconcerting bit was when they asked me to walk around so they could see what my legs were like. I felt like a cattle at an agricultural show! I got the job, but I still don’t know if it was my legs or my personality,” she laughs.
She admits in the early days she was “terrified” of her sophisticated passengers but she quickly grew to love the style and standard of service.
“All the women wore hats and the men wore suits and ties. And the wardrobe in first class was just lined with fur coats.
“Now I get on a plane and I’m sitting next to someone in a T-shirt and flip-flops!”
Libbie herself was always immaculately turned out in her tailored navy uniform – and had to wear her hat and gloves to greet passengers. “I would call the look glamorous military,” she says.
Dining, including seven-course feasts for first-class passengers, was a major part of the flight. “Well, we didn’t have movies or music or all that racket in those days so people just enjoyed the beautiful food and wine. It passed the flight time,” explains Libbie.
Caviar, lobster and smoked salmon were staples on the menu, as were roast lamb and beef. Amazingly, the joints were actually cooked on the plane.
George Forrest, 70, of Bathgate, flew 36 times on the 707 due to go on show at East Fortune during his 11 years of flying.
For a while he was on the royal flight roster, serving the likes of Princess Alexandra. Aside from the royals, he met around 40 celebrities during his stint on the 707 – including Max Bygraves, Nina Simone, Judi Dench and Peter Ustinov. His favourites, he says, were Elizabeth Taylor – “a beautiful woman, very polite” – and Telly Savalas.
As for Libbie, there was one particular star she loved flying with. “My absolute, absolute favourite was Trevor Howard – I loved the movie Brief Encounter. He was absolutely gorgeous – the way he addressed you and talked to you. He was entirely charming.”
Fresh red roses were served with dinner – on one occasion the star kept hold of his and, just before landing, presented Libbie with it. “I kept it for years,” she sighs.
Cabin crews were together for 18 to 28 days, possibly circling the globe several times. George, who joined to satisfy his travel bug, regularly visited the Far East, Africa and the US. “It’s easier to say where I didn’t go. I never got to Brazil, which I am sorry about.”
The crew tended to bond together – including with the pilots who in the 1960s were often dashing ex-wartime flyers.
It was a lifestyle which came to earth with a bump in the early 1970s, with the arrival of the Jumbo jet. Bigger than its predecessor, it marked the real beginning of mass travel and package holidays abroad. Libbie left air hostessing in 1973 to marry an Australian cattle grazier and set up home in the Outback. George left the same year, getting tired of living out of a suitcase.
“You started to get the charter airlines coming in, with smaller cabin crews,” he says. “And this was the era of trolley dollys – BOAC always had a 50/50 male-female policy but the charter airlines tended to go for all-female crews.”
Now that era of high-flying glamour is consigned to history – which is why Alastair and the Museum of Flight are so delighted to have rescued the 707 from an RAF museum in Shropshire, where it was about to be scrapped. Lovingly restored in its original colours of blue, silver and white, with the upholstery recreated by a mill in Alloa, the plane, which reaches its 50th birthday in September, and its accompanying exhibition will have a wide appeal, says Alastair. “It will bring back a lot of memories for anyone who lived through that era – and those who didn’t will be amazed at how different air travel was,” he says.
Jet Age opens at the National Museum of Flight on April 1, entry free with museum admission (adults £9, concs £7, children 12 and under free). The museum is open seven days a week.For more information, visit
• Glamour in the Skies by Libbie Escolme Schmidt is published by The History Press, priced £18
Last Updated: 27 March 2010 12:19 PM
Source: Edinburgh Evening News